Neil Young does not have the kind of “good” voice that would bring praise from a high school music teacher. But you only have to listen to Judy Collins mangle “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” to realize that rock and roll does not flourish because of “good” voices. The best rock vocals (for example, those of Mick Jagger or Richard Manuel) are usually gritty or even harsh. Negating a formula prettiness, they push forward the unique temperament of the singer (“It’s the singer, not the song” — Mick Jagger). Such vocals can never function as background music; they demand that you listen to them and feel them. Their essence is their intensityÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Â;and in light of that intensity the products of “good” voices usually sound pallid and dead.
While Neil Young is a fine songwriter and an excellent guitarist, his greatest strength is in his voice. Its arid tone is perpetually mournful, without being maudlin or pathetic. It hints at a world in which sorrow underlies everything; even a line like “you can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile” (from “I am a Child”) ultimately becomes painful to hear. And because that world is recognizable to most of us, Young’s singing is often strangely moving. In a natural and moving way, Neil Young is the Johnny Ray of rock and roll.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is Young’s second album since the demise of the Buffalo Springfield. In several repects it falls short of his previous effort. Young’s new material is a little disappointing; nothing on this album touches the aching beauty of “If I Could Have Her Tonight” and “I’ve Loved Her So Long” or the quiet terror of “The Old Laughing Lady.” His guitar work also suffers by comparison; the lyricism of the first album can only be found in faint traces here. But despite its shortcomings, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere offers ample rewards. Young’s music partially makes up for its lack of grace by its energy and its assurance. And his singing is still superb. Listen, for example, to the conviction which he gives to the title cut, a song about the need for and the impossibility of escape from Los Angeles.
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The most interesting tracks on the album are “Running Dry” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Building on a traditional folk melody, “Running Dry” interweaves electric guitar and violin into a disquieting blend. Its aura of strangeness is somewhat reminiscent of Young’s magnificent “Out of My Mind.” The lyrics are a bit over-dramatic, but the music and vocal manage to transcend them, creating the feeling of a dimly understood tragedy.
On “Cowgirl in the Sand” everything works. The lyrics are quietly accusative, while the lead guitar, alternately soaring, piercing, and driving, keeps the song surging forward. But it is Young’s singing which is the real key to the success of this track. “Cowgirl in the Sand” demonstrates quite clearly the peculiar depths of Young’s voice. It indicates how rock manages, again and again, to triumph over high school music teachers and their legions.